Local governments took strong measures to detract visitors when they closed beaches in March.
Now, most have reopened as the state moves into phase one of its reopening plan. But with the short-term rental ban and social-distancing orders still in place, the peak season will be a bit different. And local tourism offices are sharing that message with incoming visitors.
“Open beaches come with responsibility,” said Destin Mayor Gary Jarvis. “We want everyone to be good neighbors. Don’t be part of a potential problem, but a participant in the solution.”
Jarvis said that responsibility is shared with the locals, as well.
Closing and reopening beaches has been a “tough dance” for the mayor and City Council, said Jarvis. In an area so reliant on tourism, there was a push to restart the local economy and get people back to work. But, the city of Destin has limited public beach access which presented an issue when it comes to maintaining 6-foot distances.
As beaches opened May 1, Public Information Manager Catherine Card there was a “little too much” crowding in the late afternoon hours at popular sites like June White Decker Park, but beachgoers were compliant when told to spread out. The city has been sharing PSAs on social media to remind people of CDC guidelines. Lifeguards and Okaloosa County deputies are also on the front lines to ensure crowds are reduced.
If COVID cases increase or crowds become an issue, beaches can be closed again, said Jarvis. He’s optimistic people will follow rules.
“I think everyone has a better appreciation for our nature’s beauty,” he said.
The Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council is in the process of creating a task force to address tourism during the pandemic. Since the beginning of April, they’ve been sharing interactive videos and at-home activities for children that both market the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area and provide education.
On Tuesday, Walton County’s Tourist Development Council sent out a letter highlighting state orders and beach restrictions, along with social-distancing guidelines. Online marketing and social media will have the new messaging, said David Demarest, director of communications for Visit South Walton.
“It’s a new normal for now,” explained Demarest. “It can’t just be the service industry making all of the effort. This acknowledges that everybody needs to do their part. You don’t go on vacation and become immune to the virus.”
While hotels and resorts are still operating, it’s with different rules. For instance, St. Joe Hospitality, which manages Walton County resorts such as WaterColor Inn, The Pearl Hotel and WaterSound Inn, has closed resort spas and suspended turndown service and daily housekeeping services as well as providing touchless entry to hotels and facilities when possible. Some resorts are reducing resort capacity, said Demarest.
In Walton County there are approximately 3,700 hotel and resort rental accommodations that do not fall under the short-term rental ban. In Okaloosa County, there are about 2,800.
Jarvis said he doesn’t think summer will be like any in recent years: New England states still have stay-at-home orders. Florida’s interstate travel restrictions are still in place, as is the mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers coming from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Louisiana. Not to mention more than 30 million Americans are out of work.
“We’re in a little bit different world,” he said. “We’re not going to have the 90,000 people coming here for July 4th. I think it’s going to take a while for people to gain the confidence to spend money and travel.”
Any visitors who come to the Panhandle are also being encouraged to bring as many of their own groceries, medicines and cleaning supplies they can. Essential stores have been struggling to keep shelves stocked since mid-March.
“Supply lines are still stressed,” said Jarvis. “We want visitors to know we welcome you, but we need you to buy as many supplies as you can before you come and place further stress on our stores.”
Destin resident Marcie VanVleck-Bell has been a vocal opponent about beach reopenings at city meetings and on her personal blog. Her advice has been for people to “act as if you are infected with COVID-19, and could unknowingly infect others with this deadly virus.”
Guidelines or not, she thinks the safest option is staying home.
“I live on the beach, the beach is my lifestyle,” she said. “But when three-fourths of the American population can drive to the Panhandle in one day … we can’t take that.”